How the IRA's smirking garda killers beat the murder charge
Witness intimidation saw trial close to falling apart
The killers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe were about to walk free from court on capital murder charges when they suddenly, and inexplicably, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The volte-face came after the murder trials of Kevin Walsh, Michael O'Neill, Pearse McCauley and Jeremiah Sheehy had dragged on before the Special Criminal Court for weeks.
Throughout the proceedings the four IRA members looked relaxed and seemed supremely confident that they would beat the rap.
They vehemently denied the charges of murder, possession of firearms with intent to rob and maliciously wounding Detective Garda Ben O'Sullivan.
Their defence claimed that statements obtained against them had been obtained under duress, implying that the gardaí had stitched them up. The verbal admissions they allegedly made had been concocted and they claimed they were beaten, although medical evidence disputed this assertion.
The kernel of their defence was that they were totally innocent men who were being sacrificed because the State needed heads for this most heinous crime.
I recall watching from the press bench and remarking how the Republican patriots grew smugger each day.
And we soon found out why: their henchmen in the Republican movement - most of whom were also members of Sinn Féin - had deployed the IRA's favourite weapon in a bid to win their freedom.
Witnesses in the case, who had given gardaí extensive statements about the movements of the gang before and after the murder, were intimidated and threatened with the result that they had either suffered lapses of memory, were no longer sure of their evidence or refused to take the stand.
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An eye witness who had given his evidence turned to the three judges before leaving the witness box and asked: "I just want to know why should I be intimidated and threatened before I came to court?"
Each day the killers smiled and smirked and exchanged knowing glances as the State's inability to use incriminating statements from reluctant witnesses left the prosecution case in tatters. But just as the trial was about to disintegrate the killers pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of the manslaughter of Jerry McCabe.
They also pleaded guilty to maliciously wounding Ben O'Sullivan who was shot 11 times in the ambush and left critically injured, and to the charge of possessing firearms with intent to commit robbery.
The DPP, faced with the imminent demise of their case, was left with no option but agree to a plea bargain with the defendants who gave the State a stark choice: either accept a plea to the lesser charge or the killers would maintain their innocence and inevitably walk.
A fifth member of the gang, John Quinn, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit a robbery but had not been present when the shooting took place.
The Provos' sudden change of heart was greeted with widespread public and political suspicion and anger which was entirely justified; Sinn Féin and the IRA had obviously concluded a deal with the Government as part of the ceasefire.
Kevin Walsh, the leader of the IRA gang and a convicted armed robber, was facing firearms charges from the time of his arrest for the murder while hiding out at a farm house in Co Cavan.
Witnesses later gave gardaí statements admitting that while he was on the run Walsh had been visited by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The statements were contained in the State's book of evidence for the murder trial.
Pearse McCauley, who had been allowed out on bail as part of the peace process in 1995, was also due to remain in prison facing extradition to Britain where he had escaped from prison in the early 1990s.
Adams and McGuinness convinced the robbers they would gain their freedom within a year of their convictions because they were eligible for parole under the Good Friday Agreement.
Thankfully, however, the Republican conspiracy to undermine justice (this time at least) was thwarted by the politicians who read the public's anger correctly.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he believed this was a case of murder and, in the face of intense political pressure, insisted there would be no dispensations for the garda killers.
Walsh and McCauley, the ringleaders of the gang, were only released from prison in 2009.
But for the avoidance of any doubt about where Sinn Féin stood in the merciless slaying of a garda, Martin Ferris turned up to collect his comrades at the prison gates.